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​Ready or Not — Here Come the 2020s

Blogs Richard F. Chambers, CIA, QIAL, CGAP, CCSA, CRMA Oct 07, 2019

At my age, the dawn of a new decade should not be that big of a deal. After all, the middle of the coming decade will mark 50 years since I shed my college graduation gown and went to work in internal auditing.

Since that time, I have watched the calendar turn to a new decade four times. Each time, I tried to imagine what the coming decade would hold, and each time, events unfolded that no one could have foreseen. The OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s, the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the explosion of the Internet in the 1990s, the global financial crisis in the 2000s, and the explosion of social media in this decade all had profound impacts on the world in which we live and work.

We are now less than three months from the dawn of a new decade, and at such milestone moments it is a very human characteristic to look  both backward and forward. Indeed, the definition of a milestone is a marker along a path or road that offers a reference point to see where we have been and where we are going.

Already, there are dozens of blog posts, articles, and studies examining what we can expect to happen in the 2020s. But predicting the future can be a humbling exercise, as often our best guesses are driven by what we know and feel most deeply today.

Another pitfall of forecasting is underestimating the impact of technology. In 2010, there was little indication that by the end of the decade there would be more than 2.1 billion smartphones in the world, or that cyberattacks would compromise the personal information of millions, if not billions, of people around the world.

This is not surprising if one considers that our ability to predict the impact of technology is limited by the way our minds work. Celebrated entrepreneur, innovator, and founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation Peter Diamandis addresses this in his talks about linear versus exponential thinking. A simple explanation he uses to compare linear with exponential is this:

30 linear steps at 1 meter per step = 30 meters

30 exponential steps at 1 meter (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc.) = 1,073,741,824 meters 

So what does this have to do with what we can expect in the 2020s? Lots. Humans are linear thinkers, but technology is accelerating exponentially. Our best guesses about technological advances and their impacts on our lives likely will miss the mark. What's more, the influence of technology on economics, business, politics, and social norms and ethics complicate the art of prognostication even further.

However, this shouldn't stop us from trying. When we make a concerted effort to look ahead, we open our minds to see beyond the day-to-day. It lets us see the big picture and provides an opportunity to think strategically and set ambitious and achievable long-term goals.

Through the end of the year, I will focus several blog posts on what we can expect in the 2020s — at the macro level, as a profession, and personally. I will rely heavily on great minds in many fields and glean from them the most powerful and relevant predictions. I begin here at the macro scale. 

5 Predictions For the 2020s That Could Have a Profound Impact on Our Lives

The line of human/machine interface will be permanently blurred. The "phygital" world (combining physical and digital) will become entrenched in society and the workplace. Today the phygital world is primarily focused on consumer convenience, such as security systems that will tell you when you've left the garage door open or refrigerators that will alert you when you're out of milk.

In the next decade, advances in medicine, virtual and augmented reality, and an increasing acceptance of human and machine as one will drive us toward things such as implantable mobile phones, bionic body parts, 3D-printed organs, and "memory harvesting" in the form of digital personas that live beyond a person's physical life.

The world will be tested by a series of significant political/economic crises. The retirement of the Baby Boom generation in the United States, increasing global migration, increasing nationalistic movements, trade wars, growing humanitarian crises fueled by climate change, and the full integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into the workplace will combine to stress political and economic systems that historically have focused on creating value, peace, and prosperity by providing jobs for all able-bodied people. I believe one significant crisis is very likely, but the likelihood of multiple crises is a risk that cannot be overlooked.

Several economies will adopt basic/universal income models. Dramatic changes to job creation, driven by advances in AI and machine learning, will make a segment of the population permanently unemployable. While there is reason for optimism that AI will create millions of jobs, and that human-machine interactions will lead to remarkable advances in science, medicine, productivity, and quality of life, these improvements will leave many behind.

Adapting economic models to guarantee a basic or minimum income for all individuals will become necessary to avoid political and social upheaval.

The principle driver of cybercrime will evolve from direct financial gain to personal and political manipulation. We have already seen the evolution of cyber hacking from simple ways to make money illegally — phishing, identity theft, ransomware — to nation-state schemes designed to influence elections. In the 2020s, cyber hacking will take on a greater social focus designed to influence what people think and do.

The technology already exists for nefarious players to create campaigns to influence behaviors of large groups:

  • Biased search engine algorithms (algorithmic persuasion) can influence buying habits, voter turnout, and public opinion, and discriminate based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
  • "Deepfake" videos can create realistic depictions of people doing or saying things they never did or said. 
  • Hijacked websites can cut off the flow of information or subtly manipulate what is on the website, sometimes without the website owner ever realizing it.

That is the reality today, and cyber criminals have shown a troubling talent for finding new ways to leverage technology. With the imminent launch of 5G wireless technology and the explosion of data it will create, cyber criminals will assuredly find exotic ways, both brazen and covert, to influence what we hear, see, and possibly do.

U.S. economic dominance will wane significantly. Some are predicting China will overtake the U.S. in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) as soon as 2020.Whether that happens next year or not, it is almost certain to happen in the coming decade. Rising economies in China, India, and other Asian nations will allow them to exert greater influence on global trade. The Standard Chartered Bank, a British multinational banking and financial services company, predicts that by 2030, the U.S. will trail China and India in GDP with Indonesia ranking fourth.

In my research for this blog post, I found dozens of other specific predictions about technology (e.g., driverless cars, virtual dating), medical advances (e.g., bionic eyes, nanobots), finance (e.g., blockchain, disappearance of banks), politics (e.g., increased nationalism, declining trust), and more. I've tried to pull these disparate ideas together to arrive at my top five list. It could easily have been a list of 10 or 20.

Many of the predictions paint a gloomy picture of what to expect in the next decade, primarily because society, politics, and culture won't be able to keep pace with technology. However, I have unwavering confidence in the human spirit. People around the world have the uncanny ability to adapt to and endure the conditions in which they find themselves. 

I want to end on a positive note, and it is provided by Peter Diamandis, who is known for his list of Peter's Laws. Number 17 on the list is, "The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself."

As always, I look forward to your comments.

Richard F. Chambers, CIA, QIAL, CGAP, CCSA, CRMA

Former president and CEO of The IIA, the global professional association and standard-setting body for internal auditors.